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Algerian Protests: A Popular Movement Against an Ailing President

19 Mar 2019
By William Fisher
The protests against Bouteflika have spread to the Algerian population in Paris. Source: Omar-Malo, Flickr

The announcement Algeria’s elusive President would seek a fifth term led to mass protests across the country. While President Bouteflika has now bowed to protesters’ demands and withdrawn his candidacy, he still remains in office and has postponed presidential elections.

Algeria is a long way from Australia’s strategic environment, but it plays a significant role in global affairs. It has a high-performing foreign service which contributes much to the United Nations and to a wide range of multilateral organisations. Delegations at the UN ignore it at their peril. So, it is worth keeping abreast of the extraordinary events currently taking place in the country. Popular mass protests erupted on 22 February after it was announced President Abdelaziz Bouteflika would seek a fifth term in office. On 11 March, Bouteflika bowed to the protesters’ demands and withdrew his candidature for the presidency. However, he has now postponed the election due to be held on 18 April and said it will only be held after a national conference on the future direction of the country has taken place. Despite Bouteflika’s announcement he will not contest the presidency, he is yet to stand down and the regime remains in power.

To understand the current situation in Algeria, it is necessary to acknowledge its bloody independence war and recent past. Algeria was a French colony from 1830 but had long sought independence. However, unlike any other French colonies at the time, it had been “incorporated” into metropolitan France as a full Department. Approximately one million French settlers lived there and all of them were determined to remain, and for Algeria to remain French. President Charles De Gaulle was determined not to let it go and fought a brutal civil war from 1954 – 1962. Eventually, De Gaulle concluded Algeria was lost. The French pulled out in 1962, evacuating virtually all of the French settlers (“pieds noirs” or “colons”). This too was a brutal process, with the colons offered the stark choice of “the boat or a coffin.” The colons were not well treated back in France, still less the local Algerians who had sided with the French but who were abandoned in France or slaughtered in Algeria by vengeful victors. The total death toll of the independence war is unknown, but it is thought to be in the hundreds of thousands.

This was not a good start for the new state led by the revolutionary Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). The FLN quickly adopted a Soviet-style state system, both politically and economically, and kept it through to the 1980s. Algeria seemed also to align itself largely with the Soviet bloc internationally, but, in fact, this was more to do with the FLN’s uncompromising commitment to the worldwide anti-colonial movement. Algeria is rich in natural resources, particularly oil and gas, but more than 30 years of Soviet-style governance left it seriously stunted.

From the 1980s, the government set about a degree of economic reform and infrastructure-building. But there was no sign of greater political openness until mass popular protests in late 1988 when up to 600 people were killed.

In 1991, major catastrophe struck (again) when the fundamentalist party Front Islamic du Salut (FIS) won a massive majority in the first round of in Algeria’s first multiparty general elections. The military refused to let FIS take power and civil war broke out again. This proved to be almost as bloody as the war of independence, if not more so, as the Islamists’ military wing Group Islamique Armé (GIA) launched a violent insurgency. This resulted in a truly dreadful period of mass killings which lasted nearly ten years, and only started to calm when the army felt confident enough to allow new elections. It was in this period Bouteflika was first elected president, unopposed, in 1999.

The government’s reaction to the constant and long-term threat of terror attacks was to withdraw further behind a curtain of impenetrability. Its obscurantism gave rise to the term “le pouvoir” (the power) to describe the ruling elite – a self-selected group of insiders from the FLN, the army, the state oil company, the intelligence services and the ex-servicemen’s organisation. Ministers have come and gone but le pouvoir has remained. The election of Bouteflika in 1999 started a slow process of normalisation, but the army remained constantly alert for any sign of a resurgence of Islamist activism and le pouvoir has made sure it retained its control. Over the years, Bouteflika has taken steps towards allowing greater political freedom, though always within the limits allowed by le pouvoir. At times, he even attained a certain level of popularity. Through his policy of “national reconciliation,” he was re-elected for a second term with a substantial majority in 2004. This further encouraged him to change the constitution, so he could run for a third term of office in 2009.

President Bouteflika did succeed, even with the limitations of le pouvoir, in bringing back a sense of normality to Algeria – in part through reform measures and in part because the Islamist opposition was exhausted. However, his rule effectively ended when he suffered a stroke in 2013. But despite this, he still went on to win a fourth presidential term in 2014. He has withdrawn almost entirely from public life and has made virtually no public appearances since. He has often been reported to be dead. This has left Algerians with mounting resentment against the principal target – le pouvoir.

So, when the ghostly figure of Bouteflika was announced to be standing for yet another unconstitutional fifth term as President at elections scheduled for April 2019, much of the population rose in anger. To rub salt into the wound, Bouteflika’s formal candidature was announced, not by himself from hospital in Geneva, but by his staff. A later photo of him in a wheelchair allegedly leaving Geneva to return to Algiers did little to appease the public.

There are a few remarkable points to make about the situation in Algeria. First, the good news is the massive public uprisings by tens of thousands were allowed to take place, and without anyone being killed. That’s a point in Algeria’s favour as a sign of increasing stability, even responsibility. Second, the demonstrations against Bouteflika – which were essentially against le pouvoir given Bouteflika has essentially been only a shadow figure for more than five years – attracted the support of not just “students” but also of eminent regime figures such as judges, and even generals. This latter fact, if true, is a remarkable breach of the military solidarity behind le pouvoir. Third, and most importantly, Bouteflika – or more likely his colleagues in authority – quickly decided to appear to give way rather than tough it out. Bearing in mind this is the regime who fought the FIS to the death, that’s a big step.

The current situation could potentially drag on for some time. That’s possibly what le pouvoir hopes for as Bouteflika has announced he will not stand again, but he has not yet said he is actually resigning as President. The scheduled elections have been “postponed,” but no-one knows until when. The next step is to be a constitutional convention of some sort: when, who and how are all completely unknown. One can imagine selecting convention delegates could be difficult and controversial. If constitutional reform is on the agenda, any debate over the future of Algeria will surely be fraught with problems. In the meantime, Bouteflika remains as President in an extended fourth term, with quite possible hopes this situation can be prolonged indefinitely (President Joseph Kabila in Congo showed how this could be done). Already, it is clear the people are not at all satisfied with this “in principle” removal of Bouteflika, and demonstrations continue across Algeria.

Given its history, true reform is particularly hard in Algeria. That is not to say it can’t be done. Tunisia did it in a most civilised and successful way, only a few years ago. But Tunisia is not burdened with Algeria’s brutal past.

Algeria faces a period of great uncertainty and possibly great change. In the best case, a new regime with more or less stable democratic institutions and general respect for the rule of law might emerge. In the worst case, Algeria could lapse back into authoritarian military rule, Islamist revolt and civil strife. Ultimately, it is unlikely the army will ever step aside to allow an Islamist takeover, which means some continuing major role in governance for the army, and for a long time.

William Fisher is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University’s College of Diplomacy and was formerly a senior officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He had a distinguished diplomatic career serving as the Australian Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism (2013-14), the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy to the Francophone States (2011-2013), High Commissioner to Canada (2005-2008), Ambassador to France with accreditation to Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania (2000-2005), Ambassador to Thailand (1997-2000) and Ambassador to Israel (1990-94).

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.